An Expanse

On Ohio mornings on the farm, I can see three hundred and sixty degrees of the horizon, broken only by barns, clumps of trees, and a bulb of yellow-pink sunrise. My grandmother says she can’t live anywhere but this prairie now—if mountains or buildings close in her view of the horizon, she tenses, scanning the skyline for a way the sunrise or sunset can break through. This horizon has been the background for every morning run and bike ride at my mother’s house since I was twelve. Outside in the driveway, I pause to stretch overhead, then begin to shuffle, eventually run down the driveway. Farm trucks and tractors on their way to irrigate tomatoes or pick sweetcorn swerve aside, waving. A big silver or cream Dodge Ram indicates my grandfather is coming. “How’s my little girl?” he asks from the inside of the truck, tugging on his Santa Claus beard. Once I start teaching college, then go to grad school for a PhD, the greeting changes to “How’s my little professor?” We never talk long: grades, high school track meets, where I’ve been, when I am leaving again. The brief interlude comes to feel like a blessing, especially the more infrequent my visits home.

The prairie stretches for miles in Indiana too, but where I live, I’m surrounded by fences and other houses. At the most western edge of Eastern Standard Time, our mornings are dark. When at 5:00 a.m. on May 2nd I see the text message from my mom saying, “call me,” I can see to Ohio and know what has happened. My grandfather is due to have a surgery to remove blockages in his arteries that day. He has been on oxygen for a month. The gamble with his heart stretches back to the early 1980s when, like his own father, he suffered a heart attack at age fifty. But unlike his father, he has lived for another thirty-some years. Today he has died.

I know this but don’t immediately call her back. I have been fearing his death since his open heart surgery when I was sixteen. I get up from the couch where I’d be dozing during an all-night grading session, brush my teeth and take out my contacts. I take a deep breath.

When I hang up the phone and go to bed for the first time in thirty-six hours, I don’t cry. I rehearse the details in my head—he had gotten up to go to the bathroom, had fallen, Grandma and Uncle Ben were there with him. My mother is sad; my sisters are overcome grief. But all I feel is a tight, hollow space in my chest, like the contents of rib cage had been vacuumed out and replaced with lead. My husband, sleepy from his own grading all-nighter, wraps his arms around me as I stare at the wall for a long time, wondering at the strange emptiness around my heart.

This is a story I keep trying to write in past tense—ran, lived, drove, died—and cannot. It is also a story I have tried to write all summer—first for his funeral, then for June and his strawberries, then in July for his birthday. Now it is August, the month of perpetual sky and hot blades of grass and dry riverbeds and the always-present-tense task of keeping the last things alive. All I can do in the face of oncoming September is to write like this is perpetual too.

grandpa run

One of my first memories is flying to Washington DC to watch Grandpa and my father run the Marine Corps marathon. I fly with my Raggedy Anne doll and my parents, while my toddler of a brother, Levi, drives with my grandparents in the motorhome. Throughout the flight I stare out the window, convinced I see them on a highway below us. I don’t remember the marathon, but I do remember driving up a dark lane where scarecrows flanked the car. Is this real? Does it make sense? Does it matter? Later, when I start running marathons, Grandpa tells me he hadn’t liked that marathon because a section at the end is cut off from spectators, meaning he had to run alone in the last and hardest miles. My grandfather didn’t like crowds, my uncle says at the funeral as a way of explaining Grandpa’s absence from church, but I know he didn’t like running marathons without them.

My other earliest memory is a photo of six-year-old, pink-shorted me running flower to flower in Grandma’s flowerbed, sniffing each one. She’s standing somewhere behind me, hands on her hips, her hair dark, like it still is today. My grandfather isn’t in the picture. Maybe he took it. Maybe he was sitting on his recliner in the living room, wagging his feet as he watched the news or a tennis match or painted his first watercolors. It doesn’t matter. This photo is thirty years old, and my grandparents will always be here, pulling weeds, watching TV, surveying the fields, mid-fifties and unstoppable.

grandparents

I grew up a mile and a half from this house, and as soon as we could walk or ride a bike we were commuting back and forth through the fields. As soon as we could reliably use our hands, we were pushing quarts of strawberries out towards the grasping hands of customers in the market. In early June, pushing the quarts of berries, cleaning squashed fruits off the floor, and making cardboard boxes for customers to carry their purchases in was a full time job, and small children were perfect for it. We all loved strawberries in late May when the first pink berries turned scarlet. We hated them by the end of June when our fingernails and bottoms of our shoes were stained red.

Grandpa was everywhere. He coasted around the market in his truck, observing how many quarts were left. Later in corn season, he’d watch the wagons of corn from his truck, estimating when we would need another wagon. He’d yell at the stockboy to push the corn out of the middle of the wagon and empty the buckets of corn husks, and then head to the café for a chocolate ice cream cone or a shake.  When I was old enough to work in the U-Pic strawberry fields, I’d hear conversations between him and farmhands on the radio. He’d simultaneously give orders, get updates on irrigation, and yell at someone for messing up his job. Then he would drive off and say nothing for hours. He might replicate this pattern in a friendlier way at birthday parties and weddings. He could talk nimbly with strangers and old friends, then suddenly have to walk away. Words came at a cost.

No wonder, for he had so many other things to love—sports (archery, cycling, wrestling, football, basketball, running, track and field, tennis), his grandchildren, his grandchildren’s sports, Grandma (he used to enlist me or one of my sisters to help him buy her Christmas presents), painting, farming, PBS broadcasts of Riverdance (“You girls would be good at that” he told my sisters and I when we were high school ballerinas), Ohio State, traveling, and eating. An athlete through high school, he coached my brother and cousins in wrestling, growling if they showed any slack. On his afternoon nap breaks he watched whatever sport was in season. He ran two marathons and multiple half marathons. Many years he ran the Strawberry Festival 10K (a festival he helped co-found) and feasted on his own strawberries and watermelons at the finish line. On summer evenings he played tennis in the park in Tipp City or Troy.

On winter evenings he would sit in his office in the two-story white farmhouse on route 202, and paint watercolors. He surrounded himself with stacks of papers, weight equipment, seed packages, a treadmill, and his watercolors. He painted photos of my sister astride a donkey, my brother in a kilt, waterfalls in Jamaica, the farm against the backdrop of summer, and me, age six, picking daisies in a field.

katie painting

In 2011 my grandfather gets weaker and in 2013 I get divorced. Our frailness begins to show. Several weeks after I leave my now-ex husband, I drive through the winter-killed Indiana-Ohio horizon to my conservative family. It is a mild January weekend and everyone is gentle with me. I sit for a long time at the kitchen table with my grandmother while she asks questions and feeds me. “Well, I knew something was wrong,” she says. “Every time you came over to see me you looked like you had been crying.” She never suggests I go back even though the faith we grew up espousing would have. Towards the end of my visit, I walk into the living room to see Grandpa in his recliner. For years I’ve been watching him; the eternally fifty year old man is now in his late seventies, and has a heart that frustrates him. He spends a lot more time in his recliner than in his silver Dodge Ram. “I’m worried about you little girl,” he says. “Should I be?”

“I think I’m OK,” I say, holding his large speckled hand in both of mine.

“You know what you’re doing?”

“I think so.”

My grandmother walks up behind us. “She’s just spreading her wings,” she says. “She’s about to do great things.”

Have I lived up to my grandmother’s fortune telling? Only if happiness equals greatness. In May 2015 I marry a man who loves farms, and running, and me. “If you want your grandparents there,” my mom says, “you’re going to have to have the wedding in Ohio.” We had the reception in the farm market where I’d pushed quarts of berries and buckets of corn stalks as a child and teenager. My grandfather stayed for the whole wedding and reception, talking to my new in-laws, grinning at all these people admiring his farm. Our wedding photos were set against a backdrop of fields and endless Ohio horizon, my grandparents’ house a blink of white in the background.

timkat walking away

The morning of his funeral, my husband and I lace up our running shoes and head down the lane for a run in the sunrise. At the end of the driveway when we turn out on to the road, I feel like something is missing. It isn’t until we are running back up the truckless driveway that I remember again, and again, what is finally gone.

 

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